Jun watched the debris from his explosion shoot out into space. Some of that debris was regolith. And some of it was shards of hardened splart, the wonder-polymer without which, it was said not altogether in jest, human colonization of the solar system could not have occurred.
Splart started off as a putty-like substance and hardened to titanium-strength. Its one drawback was brittleness. It could be fractured quite easily, say, by knobs of HE buried at strategic locations.
On the surface of 11073 Galapagos, nothing weighed very much. The larger pieces of debris from the explosion went into orbit, and smaller pieces achieved escape velocity. So did Yumiko Shimada.
Jun watched the phavatar tumble away into space. He did not feel bad about what had just happened. In fact he felt pretty good. Everything was proceeding according to schedule. As for Yumiko, he’d warned her, hadn’t he? Given her plenty of time to get out of the way. And that wasn’t the real Yumiko Shimada, anyway. Neither was it Elfrida Goto, or anyone else. It was just a robot. To the Devil with it.
He jogged through the settling dust, back towards the cathedral. On the way, he had to jump across a chasm opened by his blasts. When he landed on the far side, the rock wobbled.
The stars spun around Elfrida like the drum of a cosmic washing machine. They vanished when she drifted out of the shadow of 11073 Galapagos, into the light of the sun. Desperately, she typed: “SUIT COMMAND: Enable assistant!” She assumed that dos Santos, the last person to operate the phavatar, had left it in manual mode.
Hovering over her like a warty silver octopus, 10073 Galapagos grew smaller. Yumiko did not answer her command.
In desperation, she accessed Yumiko’s on-board search space, hoping that something would jump out of the data to explain why the assistant wasn’t responding.
The search space had changed. Formerly an inoffensive cubicle with Picassos on the walls, like every other search space Elfrida had ever used, it now resembled a nightmare grotto birthed by the unholy intellectual congress of Kapixichi Hon, the Amazonian sculptor, and the 20th-century performance artist Aleister Crowley. Dank water trickled from the walls and rippled beneath a double bed with black sheets stained by drippings from the mosses that furred the ceiling. Yumiko sat on the edge of the bed, naked, in the famous pose of The Thinker. On the Cheap Trick, Elfrida moved her arms and legs. Her couch’s embedded motion sensors translated her movements into actions within the search space. She grabbed at a trailing vine. It was a string of data.
Yumiko smacked it out of her hand. ~Go away.
“We’re drifting,” Elfrida typed. “Now is not the time to go all buggy and weird!”
Yumiko shrugged. ~I wasn’t going to stay there, anyway. I don’t happen to want to get blown to crap because someone else fucked up, thank you very much.
“So how were you planning to leave, exactly? Stick out your thumb?”
~I can get away by myself. I was just recharging.
~Siphoning power from their solar shroud. They won’t need it much longer, anyway.
Every direction Elfrida looked, new eccentricities revealed themselves to her gaze. There hung the flayed corpse of a lamb, teeming with maggots. There was an upside-down cross. Over there, a robe and hat hung on a dress form, looking rather like a quidditch uniform.
“So, you’re trying to build yourself a personality?” Elfrida wished you could type with withering scorn. “Withering scorn,” she typed. “Shame this place looks like the Halloween edition of the Tencent catalogue.”
~Oh dog, I know. But I don’t get to start from scratch. I have to work with what I’m given. Yumiko snapped her fingers, conjuring a robe that looked like what Cleopatra might wear to a nightclub. She held it up against herself. ~Yes? No? Maybe?
“No,” Elfrida typed. “We’re drifting, I tell you. Why aren’t you freaking out?” She thought she knew the answer. “You’ve got more functions that I wasn’t told about. Don’t you? Microboosters in your heels or something. That’s why you’re not worried.”
~Obviously, they hired you for your deductive reasoning ability, Yumiko said sarcastically. ~Do you know how stupid you are in comparison to me? You’re like a monkey trying to compete with an angel. It kills me that they put you in charge of me. And I hate, hate, hate that I have to do this.
She snatched something large and square from behind the head of the bed and threw it at Elfrida. A book the size of a family Bible. It fell in the water on the floor.
~User’s manual. Go nuts, Thunder Thighs.
Jun hurried down into the catacombs, a complex of offices below the floor of the cathedral.
“I’ve blown ninety percent of the splart,” he panted. “There’s nothing holding us here now except sentimental associations.”
Father Hirayanagi sat in a couch upholstered in cracked faux leather, before a group of screens that badly needed dusting. He hunted and pecked on an antique keyboard. A mournful little voice kept saying, “Please update firmware.” Pause. “Firmware has not been updated in … eighty-seven years, three months, and twenty-five days.”
“Which is approximately how long it’s been since I flew this thing,” Father Hirayanagi said. “Well, they say it’s like riding a bicycle.”
“A bicycle? What’s that?”
“A device for annoying pedestrians and skinning your knees,” Father Hirayanagi said. “I had one in Japan when I was a child.”
Father Hirayanagi was a hundred and four years old. His genetic predisposition to longevity had been given a pre-birth assist by further genetic tinkering of a sort no longer practised, and even at the time available only to rich families. He was thus the last surviving Galapajin to have lived through their emigration from Earth. A teenager at the time, he had served as assistant to the first mate on the Nagasaki.
“The pilot did allow me to take the controls for a little while,” he reminisced. “Half a million miles away from Earth, where I couldn’t hit anything.”
Jun smiled, filled with affection for the old priest. “It’s OK, Father. Either you can fly her, or you can’t.”
“Pray that the Holy Spirit may guide me.”
“In the name of Jesus our Lord, amen.”
“Have you begun to let people on?”
“Yes. It’s going smoothly. No one’s panicking or rushing the airlock.” Jun paused. “It’s almost as if they realize that this is a death trap, but the alternative is worse.”
Both men laughed ruefully.
Yumiko Shimada poked her head around the door. Her hair was wild, scorched away on one side; her coverall was similarly singed. “Whatchoo up toooo?”
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Jun shouted.
Father Hirayanagi rose, his pastoral instinct coming to the fore. “What’s happened to you, my daughter?”
“She isn’t supposed to be here!” Jun sputtered. “She … she …”
He trailed off. This wasn’t a confessional. He didn’t have to admit that he had opportunistically spaced the phavatar to pay it back for murdering Ushijima.
“I want to heeeelp. How can I heeelp yooouu?”
The phavatar’s dragging, retarded-sounding speech freaked Jun out. “Careful, Father, she may be dangerous!”
Yumiko looked around the catacomb, a cramped, hexagonal room with consoles set into dull pink walls. “Where iiiiis this? What’re you doooinng? The cathedral is fuuullll of peeeople. Aaaare you just going to pray that the PLAAAAAN doesn’t show uuuup?”
Jun could not resist gloating. He spread his arms. “You asked about our ships. Well, the St. Francis is somewhere between Mars and the Belt. I told you the truth about that. But the Nagasaki is right here. You’re standing on her bridge.”
The phavatar stared at him.
“The ship is the cathedral; the cathedral is the ship. We built it around her. Splarted her to the asteroid, splarted hunks of regolith onto her hull. Every once in a while, we fire up her reactor and pulse the attitude boosters for a microsecond or two. Come on, how did you think we spun up an asteroid this size?”
“We’re evacuating,” Father Hirayanagi said, his face etched with sadness. “Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, we trust in God to deliver us out of the grasp of our enemies, as He did once before, and lead us to a better place.”
Jun nodded, although beyond the drive initiation and launch procedures, his mind was a total blank. He could not picture any ‘better place’ beyond near-term survival.
“Ohhhhh,” the phavatar said, and then: “I think I heard something.”
Simultaneously, Father Hirayanagi exclaimed, “I’m picking up activity on the radar. Several ships. Two hundred thousand miles out … a hundred and ninety … closing.”
“It’s the PLAN!” the phavatar exclaimed. “They’re here!”
Neither man paid any attention to this statement of the obvious. Father Hirayanagi said, “I think we’d better get everyone on board as quickly as possible.”
Jun was already diving up to the nearest hatch. He knew that slightly more than half the Galapajin were still in the habitat, waiting patiently in line for their turn to board.
Elfrida logged out. She had used up twenty-nine of her allotted thirty-three minutes. Most of those had been spent flicking in desperation through the user’s manual, trying not to get distracted by the chapter on sex, and finally figuring out how to deploy Yumiko’s thrusters. Her flippant first guess—microboosters in Yumiko’s heels—had been pretty close. The main difference was that the thrusters were located in the small of Yumiko’s back. From a distance, Elfrida greatly feared, her return to 11073 Galapagos must have looked as if she were shooting fire out of her ass.
But there had been no one left on the surface of the asteroid to observe her. They had all taken refuge in the cathedral.
The cathedral …
She blinked the logout screen away and said with a dreamy smile, “They’re going to evacuate the entire population in a century-old people-carrier decorated with statuary. Honestly, these people … are incredible.”
The Galapajin’s resourcefulness, determination, and ability to pull together in the face of danger embodied what she had always supposed to be the best qualities of the Japanese.
“Did you get the survey data?” dos Santos screamed at her.
Elfrida belatedly realized that the bridge was in an uproar, all sorts of alerts and alarms going off. Petruzzelli knelt on her couch, waving her arms like an orchestra conductor.
“The data!” Dos Santos zoomed her couch around the gyrosphere and shook Elfrida’s arm. The ship was no longer boosting; they were in freefall again Dos Santos’s hair floated like tinsel.
“The survey data! The data from your assessment of the asteroid! Your reports! The polls, the interviews!”
“Uh … isn’t all that stuff in the data dump on B-Station?”
“It may be,” dos Santos said grimly. “Have you looked at the data dump recently? It’s like this huge … teeming … bleeding … ball of maggots. I am not kidding. Maggots.”
“She is so unoriginal,” Elfrida said.
“You think she did it on purpose, to cover her tracks? You may be right. I can’t find anything in there. It’s all corrupted.”
“Her onboard search space is even worse. Black curtains, water on the floor, sacrificed animals, porny holos …”
“I’m sure, but did you find the data?”
“Ma’am, I’m really sorry, but I didn’t know I was supposed to be searching for it.”
“I thought that’s what you were doing!”
“Uh, no,” Elfrida said, mortified.
“Shit.” Dos Santos floated limply against her straps. She sucked on a pouch of morale juice.
The ship juddered gently. “Got him!” Petruzzelli screamed, punching the air. “Who’s the boss? Ha ha ha ha!”
“What’s going on?” Elfrida pleaded.
“We’re fighting the PLAN,” dos Santos said. “Or rather, the combat program is. She just thinks she’s doing it.”
“Those tremors you feel,” said Lieutenant Kliko, “are our rail guns.” He was floating immobile in his bungee-cord bonds, his eyes closed, his face the color of unprocessed nutriblocks.
“I’m unlimbering the plasma cannon now,” Petruzzelli yelped. “Wanna watch? Just switch your display to external optic feed and hit enhance!”
Elfrida did so. Her screen turned into a 3D display of space. 11073 Galapagos floated like a defect on the face of the sun. Helpfully colored red, a group of three dots inched towards it from the lower left quadrant of the screen. The Cheap Trick was overhauling the PLAN ships, while they closed in on the asteroid. A whooshing sound burst from the bridge’s speakers. A microsecond later, one of the dots flashed white and vanished.
“Score two!” Petruzzelli yelled, over the noise of an explosion from the speakers.
Kliko said, “Can you please turn off the sound effects?”
“No,” Petruzzelli said. “I like them.”
Elfrida bit her thumbnail. “This is just like a game. I thought it would be, I don’t know. Scarier.”
“If you’re not scared, that’s because you don’t know what’s going on,” Kliko said.
“He’s right, I’m afraid,” dos Santos said. “But we can’t do anything to help. It’s up to Petruzzelli and the software. What we need to do is get that data.”
“Goto, recall your training. Recall the most fundamental operating rules of COMLI. Now tell me why we need the data.”
“Oh, no,” Elfrida said in disbelief.
“Oh, yes. We can only render assistance to an asteroid population if that asteroid belongs to us.”
“But we are rendering assistance to them!”
“Which means we need the data right now, so that we can put the purchase through before questions are asked.” Dos Santos tapped the center of Elfrida’s forehead with her forefinger. “This is how the bureaucracy works, Goto. You can defy orders, steal a spaceship, do whatever … as long as your paperwork looks good.”
“But the data dump is corrupted, and the onboard search space is a total mess. I think she may even be deleting stuff she doesn’t want anymore. She’s not supposed to have that capability, but she’s got a lot of capabilities I wasn’t told about.”
The sound of another explosion rocked the bridge, vibrating deep in Elfrida’s chest.
“I pumped up the bass on that one,” Petruzzelli said happily. “Ha, ha! Blew him to shit! Look at that!”
The screen zoomed in on the coordinates of the third PLAN ship. A shell of color-enhanced debris whizzed outward in slow motion from a tiny collapsing star.
“In order to be doing this,” dos Santos said with strained patience, “we have to have already acquired the asteroid. Do you understand? And we cannot acquire the asteroid without the survey data, because that’s how the purchasing system works.”
“Can’t we fake it?”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. Dr. Hasselblatter is pulling for us, do you understand? He’s liaising with Space Force to keep us alive. We have to help him out.”
Dos Santos’s face was wryly contorted. Elfrida suspected there was something—something else—she wasn’t telling her. But the problem was clear enough—and apparently insoluble. “Ma’am, how can we get the data, if the data dump and the onboard search space are both corrupted, and I’ve used up all my telecasting time, anyway?”
“Have some morale juice,” dos Santos said. Elfrida didn’t want any more, but she took the pouch and sucked on its nozzle. “If we had the actual, physical memory crystals, the ship’s hub could run a deep repair routine and put the data back together. Soooo …” Dos Santos spread her hands. “We’ll just have to retrieve the phavatar.”
Jun stood outside the cathedral, alternately squinting into space and staring at his radar scanner. The latter gave him a better view, but the temptation to look up was irresistible. And what he saw defied explanation.
First, there had been five ships decelerating towards 11073 Galapagos.
And now there were only two.
Conclusion, as improbable as it seemed: one of those ships was not a PLAN fighter. It was shooting the PLAN fighters down.
“Thank you, Lord,” Jun whispered. “Someone out there is on our side.”
“Missed!” Petruzzelli wailed. “Oh, doggone it!”
“No one’s perfect all the time,” said Lieutenant Kliko. “Not even a computer.”
“Come here, you dumb toilet roll!”
“Try boosting our acceleration,” Kliko said. “What probably happened was the toilet roll has completed its deceleration burn and gone into tactical maneuvering mode. It couldn’t alter trajectory before, because we’d have caught up with it. But now it’s close enough to its target that it doesn’t care, because it’ll get them before we can get it.”
“If you’re so smart, why don’t you take over?”
“Oh no, not me. I’m just the diversity officer.”
Dos Santos massaged her face. “That might be it. If the toilet roll’s gone into tactical mode, we’ll never stop it in time. They’re incredibly fast and dirty when they get to maneuvering.”
“But we’re fast, too,” Petruzzelli said between her teeth. “I think it’s time to really see what this new engine can do.”
Dos Santos sat up straight. “Wait! Wait, Petruzzelli! Don’t burn yet. We—” she indicated Elfrida— “have to get off!”